Why is my horse fat? That’s a good question and one that I was asked routinely during annual preventative wellness checks on my patients. It is also a question that I get asked in emails all too frequently. I think it is a good question and for those that ask the question, it is a sign that they recognize that a problem exists, thus opening door for correction. An overweight horse is not a sign of good health and over time, can lead to significant health problems and increased morbidity, not to mention mortality for some. Seeing that the problem is present is the first step, but taking the following steps to conquer the issue at hand means that we must understand some basic concepts.
What is an overweight horse? Well, by definition and based on body scoring charts, it is technicallly a horse of body condition 7 or higher, at least in my books. However, this can vary in opinion and really, we go based not so much on a chart, but on ‘feel’ for that animal. An ideal way to determine body condition is by feel of the chest wall or ribs. What we want or desire, on a basic level, is to be able to feel those ribs with light pressure, but not visably see them. The more pressure we have to put to the chest wall to feel those ribs, the more fat pad there is between us and the ribs. Not a good thing. The typical signs of an overweight horse are not only the rib pressure test, but also fat deposition over the points of the hips, a deepening crease down the spine and also a cresty neck.
Here is a basic equine body scoring chart. Ideal body condition is in the range of 5-6, in my veterinary opinion. The more active a horse is, in regards to competition and training, likely the thinner they will be, however, this is not always the case and often breed dependent. As an example, a training Thoroughbred is more likely to be much thinner and leaner, than a warmblood in the world of Dressage. Several reasons for this which include breed, age and even level of work differences between the two sports. There is also a factor of stress, which can complicate matters.
In the real world clinical setting, we have horses that fall into two categories. We have those that are backyard pleasure horses, more recreational or even just sedentary in their lives who are overweight. Then we have those horses that are competing or training, on various levels, which can be regarded as overweight or more so, easy keeper types. Actually, any overweight horse, by definition, is seen as an easy keeper. Just a question of how far they have taken it in terms of weight gain. Some are just ‘fleshy’, while others are overtly obese.
So, what’s the big deal?
An overweight body condition, whether if we are a horse, companion pet or human, does not equate to health. Looking at it in regards to human data, the higher the body mass index (BMI), the more likely one is to suffer ill health side effects ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes to even cancer. The same holds true for horses. The more overweight that horse is, the more health related problems we, as the owners, will deal with emotionally and financially.
In the early stages, most horses start off as ‘fleshy’ or mild easy keepers. We see the overweight body condition building and maybe even a drop in stamina or performance. They get lazy and sometimes irritable. As time goes by and body weight builds, so does the fat stores. The process of inflammation becomes a real factor with most health ailments and an overweight body condition is no different. The fat deposits actually secrete their own inflammatory proteins, termed adipokines. This is why any overweight person or animal demonstrates higher levels of inflammation, and is also predisposed to further health ailments.
In the horse, over time, the heightened inflammatory process at a cellular level contributes to more recognizeable conditions such as metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, hypothyroidism and laminitis, not to mention potentially Cushing’ disease, allergies and even joint or foot problems. Those owners that are familiar with those conditions know that not only can they be costly and time consuming to manage, but are difficult, frustrating and often lead to years of suffering. In the veterinary community, those conditions are likely the most common causes of high expenditures by the owner in regards to diagnostic testing, medications and ongoing care.
Sounds bad, right? It is, but the good news is that if managed properly, the outcome can be very favorable. Ideally, though, we aim to prevent it in the first place.
Causes of Weight Gain and Obesity
We are back to the original question, which is ‘why is my horse fat?’. Truth be told, it is your fault, as the owner. Harsh? Maybe, but it is truth. I agree that breed does have something to do with it, more of a predisposition, but just because we own a QH, a Morgan or any other ‘high risk’ breed, does not mean they are destined for obesity. Nor should it be used as an excuse when it does occur.
In reality, weight gain is a rather simple concept; too many calories in and not enough out (in regards to calorie burn). If we want to gain weight, we need to consume more calories than our body is burning or using on a daily basis. If we want to lose weight, we have to cut back calories in relation to burn rate, or increase the rate of burn, simply speaking.
- Impact of Diet: To understand horses better, we need to look at humans. In our human world, society tends to consume way too many calories in relation to the amount of work done each day for calorie burn. These calories are consumed through all of the wrong foods, which include processed foods and calorie dense meals that are often incomplete in regards to nutrition. So, there are few things happening here. Through high consumption of processed foods, we are not only getting way too many calories, often from fats, but we are also not getting the proper nutrients that our body needs to function. This partially explains why many of us ‘crash’ after lunch. On top of all this, we as humans, are not getting the proper exercise to fuel and work our body, which not only burns calories, but also enhances vital functions, including metabolism and organ health. Horse are not much different, really. Many are fed highly processed feeds, which includes snacks or treats. Some are labeled as ‘low calorie’ or even low NSC, but they are full of synthetic, sprayed on nutrients, and often have nutrient sources that are not natural. So, they too, are often being fed way too many calories in relation to calorie need or burn. If we also look at the quality of nutrition provided for most horses, it is subpar, at least in my opinion. Many overweight horses are fed lower quality hays, which may include grass hay, fescue and even some bermuda. They are hays, full of fiber, but their nutrient provision is very low. We have to remember that the body needs nutrients to function, including metabolism. For some odd reason, the general recommendation is to starve these horses, but reducing hay quality and also quantity, then supplement or replace what is lost with some sort of vitamin/mineral supplement. Makes no sense.
- Lack of Exercise: This is not always a factor in every overweight horse, but does play a major role in a high percentage. If a horse is overweight, plain and simple, they are burning fewer calories than they are taking in daily. What is exercise? To me, exercise means a planned routine, often pushing that animal to submaximal levels, obtaining target heart rates and calorie burns, for a set period of time several times per week. If we have a horse in training, that is good, but again question is how hard is that horse pushed? Is it adequate too maintain body condition and stamina? If not, then we need to go further. Running a few ground poles under saddle, a few dressage moves or even a few barrels a couple times per week is generally not sufficient. The fact is that most overweight horses with metabolically induced health problems are rather sedentary, living lives in a dry lot, being fed low quality hay with little overall movement. We strive to help them lose weight, but one major component, exercise, is missing from the regimen. It is true that in some cases, the horse is not capable of exercise, maybe due to ongoing laminitis or even breathing problems. That is okay, no different than a person with major health problems. We see the goal and work our way up, slowly, doing what is possible for that animal at that point in time. More than likely, with time, health will improve and we can slowly increase the capacity and even willingness for exercise.
- Stress: Stress is a huge player in equine health and weight gain. In the human world, we are all too quick to blame stress and cortisol on fat deposition, which is true, so why don’t we apply the same logic to horses? Stress can be either primary, secondary or even both. As health declines and more ailments become problematic, more stress is added to that animal. So, we can have a horse that is under stress due to training or even boarding situations, then gain weight, develop foot concerns and become even more stressed. The impact of stress is beyond the scope of this article, but it is safe to assume that in a large percentage, it is a player. Question is whether if we recognize it and modify that response, if possible?
- Boarding/Housing and Dynamics: This final contibutor takes on many levels. On a basic level, we may have a horse that is gaining weight that is in a boarding situation, likely stalled most of the day or put in a small paddock for only a few hours with minimal grazing. This restrictment not only hinders the ability to full exercise, stretch those legs and burn calories, but also contributes to more added stress. See point #3 above. In others, we may have herd dynamics being added in as a factor, which add more stress to some. Boarding, being an entity itself, is also often counter productive to helping a horse with their weight problem in many ways. First, most boarding facilities do not do well with presciption type of diets or regimens. They want a ‘one size fits all’ type of approach for ease, which makes sense, but is not logical. If a horse needs to go on a special hay or have special turnout or exercise, it often does not work. Second, because of boarding situations, many owners are not hands on with their horses and see them infrequently. This means that we don’t keep tabs on things like weight and often come out one month surprised at how much weight our mare or gelding has gained. The more hands on we are, the more willing we are to make changes and take action.
Correcting the Situation
In order to correct a situation, first we need to understand the problem. If we can do this, we increase our odds of success dramatically! Not every overweight horse of a high body condition score can be reverted back to a 5-6. Many can, but most do not. It is not that it cannot be done, but in order to do so in some, it requires a high level of dedication. Almost all health problems are created by us, that is a fact, and if we created them, then we need to uncreate them…or fix what we have done wrong. There is nothing that is 100%, nothing that will work every time, but with some basic logic, we can improve the odds.
First, we need to address diet. In human studies, just the elimination of processed foods and implementation of a high fruit/veggie diet can create huge strides in weight reduction in the average person. The reasons for this is not only elimination of things we don’t need, but also through gaining the things we do need. Through alteration of that diet, that person will likely lose weight due to enhanced performance of their machine, their body, through proper nutrient provision. Cells work better, energy is produced, calories are burned and the machine just works better. The same holds true for horses. Turnout is good, as it does encourage movement, but most of that movement is limited as it is usually ‘heads down’ all of the time. Some ways we can get around this are to keep the paddock or pasture mowed short, so they have to move about to get new grass. Second, we could use a grazing muzzle to limit their intake, but in many, this creates more stress and frustration. Third, we could just plan a daily exercise regimen, such as riding or lunging, to burn those calories then allow them to be turned out almost as a reward. Through that exercise regimen, we hopefully can reset the metabolic burn, thus potentially helping us to offset the increased grass intake in regards to calories.
Diet goes further than just pasture. We need to eliminate those Scoobie snacks, as I call them. No more treats, unless they are warranted or at least natural in form, such as an apple or carrot piece. We also need to evaluate that hay source. Is it really high enough quality to provide nutrients for the body to function? Or is just a filler, full of fiber to create satiety? High nutritive hay sources such as alfalfa, orchard or timothy hay are preferred in my eyes, as they provide a much higher level of nutrition and nutrition is what we are after. We can’t expect cellular energy to be enhanced along with calorie burn, if we are feeding a low energy, low nutrient density forage. Alfalfa hay, as a side note, is one of the lowest NSC hays available. Add to that the nutritive value and it is worth every penny. However, hay needs to be fed based on body weight and in most cases of overweight horses, we feed about 1.5% of BW daily. If we need filler, then we can supplement with pasture or a lower quality hay.
Grains are generally high in fat, naturally speaking. Does a horse need grains? Depends on that horse and energy needs. Most overweight horses are not active, thus they do not need grains, period. However, as exercise and proper supplementation is put into play, those energy needs and nutrient requirements may change. If we feed grains, most of the time, it is to act as a medium for proper supplementation. When we do feed grains, we choose natural, whole grains such as oats, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, often mixed with alfalfa pellets. Many options to choose from, however, no matter what blend we opt for, volume fed is key so as not to overload the situation. In most of our patients, we feed from 0.5 – 1.0 lb of grain once to twice daily. It is something you have to measure and weigh out. By going natural, we eliminate the expensive processed feeds and many harmful additives within them, moving to something that is more controllable, affordable and healthier. In most, as long as they are on a high enough quality hay and pasture, they do not need a ‘vitamin/mineral’ supplement. Even if we do, I’d rather opt for a whole food approach to nutrients, than a synthetic based product.
In talking about diet, we have to also mention the importance again of inflammation in the course of events. Overweight horses are more prone to inflammatory problems, which impacts them on many levels from metabolism to joint function. Poor diets, lacking in real nutritive value, are often pro-inflammatory. Many natural diets, with whole foods and high quality hays, are often anti-inflammatory in actions. Herbs and even fruit extracts can greatly assist us in this area, boosting the benefits of a diet regimen. Herbs such as curcumin, boswellia, dandelion, parsley and even marshmallow can be very helpful in these patients from an inflammatory point of view. Then, we have more nutritive herbs or fruit extracts such as spirulina, alfalfa, spinach, blueberry, noni fruit, bilberry, apple peel, astragalus and even the mushrooom Poria cocos, that not only help us from an inflammatory point of view, but many also provide real nutrient and antioxidant benefits. In the end, through proper use, we are able to mitigate damage cellular events and help restore normal cell function.
In one of our research projects, we demonstrated how the use of a fruit and berry based formula in horses actually resulted in an average weight loss of 30 lbs or more, in a 30 day period. In some of those horses, current diet and even exercise regimens were not even altered. You can read more about that study in this article.
Exercise and stress management are paramount. In most, we need to either increase the amount of exercise they are getting or in most, we need to start an exercise regimen. We can supplement all day long and even change that diet, but exercise will go a long way to helping us achieve our goals. Stress is also a key player and often made worse through a poor health condition. Over time, by altering diet and exercise, we may actually change that stress response, making it more favorable. If the situation cannot be changed, meaning factors such as boarding or training are creating that stress, then we need to implement specific herbs into the regimen to help offset those negative outcomes.
In the end, a horse doesn’t have to be overweight or fat. It is a matter of choice. It is always easier in the long run to prevent the problem from developing, for once it has developed, it can cascade into a multitude of health ailments. Through a little bit of work and implementation of some know how, the situation can be improved for almost every horse. The beautiful thing is that often, as improvements are made, many of those costly and frustrating health problems actually improve on their own.
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Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M.